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Actor Job Description, Career as an Actor, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Work, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

Education and Training: Varies—see profile

Salary: Varies—see profile

Employment Outlook: Good

Definition and Nature of the Work

To the audience acting seems like glamorous work, but it is a profession that requires unusual talent and years of training and study, offers a minimum of security, and is physically and intellectually demanding. However, most actors report a great deal of satisfaction from their work, whether they act in plays, in films, or on television.

Although very few actors become "stars," a number of professionals are successful in that they find steady employment. They may work in local and regional acting companies, appear in commercial or industrial shows, narrate films, read stories or plays for audiobooks, or play minor parts in movies and radio and television serials or commercials. Some actors become dramatic coaches, directors, or acting teachers in schools, colleges, and local theater groups. Many actors work at other jobs while they seek their first roles or are between acting engagements.

New actors often start in small companies with small roles. They progress to larger roles in other media or become understudies to lead roles. If the lead performer falls ill, the understudy will take his or her place for that performance. Actors may also move from very small experimental theaters or children's entertainment to larger companies with larger audiences.

An actor's success is usually the result of hard work, self-discipline, patience, and determination. Good actors often have some special quality or talent that enables them—through words and gestures, music and dance—to make the audience believe they are the characters they portray.

Being an actor requires learning lines and stage techniques, putting on makeup, being fitted for costumes, and attending rehearsals and classes. Acting is often a team effort that requires cooperation with many different people: directors, designers, stage managers, fellow actors, camera operators, and a variety of backstage and production workers.

If stage actors are in a successful play, they may repeat their performance many times over—sometimes for more than a year. During this time, they may also have to attend rehearsals if the director decides they are becoming "stale" or if some cast members are replaced with new actors. When the run—however long—of a given production is over, they must seek work again.

Acting in motion pictures is different from stage acting in that movie actors often perform only small parts of their roles at one time. Each scene is usually filmed separately and often out of sequence. In addition, film actors may divide their time between studio work and on-location shooting.

Education and Training Requirements

Formal training in acting is generally necessary, but practical acting experience is the most common requirement for success. Special training in the dramatic arts is available at professional schools and actors' studios located primarily in New York City, Los Angeles, and other large metropolitan areas. In addition, more than six hundred colleges and universities offer theater arts programs and many have special drama schools. Check college catalogs for specific details.

High schools typically offer extracurricular drama programs and courses in theater arts. The more experience a new actor gets, the better: prospective actors are advised to join a local theater group, participate in activities that require public speaking, take part in school plays, and become avid viewers of films and plays.

Besides developing acting skills, aspiring performers should study speech, voice, pantomime, dance and movement, period styles, improvisation, and a variety of other skills like fencing, juggling, or playing a musical instrument. A knowledge of theater history and of play and film production is important. Courses in psychology may also be helpful. In general, the more training and practical experience an actor has, the wider the range of employment possibilities.

Getting the Job

To get parts, actors usually must "make the rounds." This process includes finding out what plays or films are scheduled for production, visiting and registering with casting offices, leaving photos and resumes, and attending auditions. Producers and directors hold these "tryouts" because there are many people competing for the same role. Actors may read a few lines or walk and move across the stage so the producers and directors can get an idea of their style. Directors and producers also "scout" performances of university and off-Broadway plays.

Notices for auditions are generally posted in trade journals such as Variety or Back Stage. As actors become better established, they may rely on personal contacts for employment. Actors often hire casting agents or managers to help them get auditions or arrange personal interviews with producers and directors. These agents get a percentage of the performers' earnings, and they are helpful in circulating actors' resumes to casting offices, regional theaters, and film companies.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Although an actor is occasionally "discovered," many begin their careers as extras in films or members of a chorus line. Others start by appearing in "walk-on" parts in plays, doing "voice-overs" for television commercials, reading stories and plays for recording studios, or demonstrating products at conventions and sales meetings. They appear in whatever productions are available to them to get exposure.

Many actors go to New York City and Hollywood to find work. Other American cities such as Boston, Minneapolis, Chicago, and Washington, as well as university towns, are developing regional theaters and repertory companies. Dinner theaters, summer stock, resort area companies, and local productions are other places where actors can find theater work outside of New York. Soap operas give some actors regular employment; public television provides occasional roles. Some actors turn to writing, directing, coaching other actors, or teaching.

Through the year 2014 many jobs will be available as actors leave the field. However, competition will always be great for the jobs that are available. Commercial theaters, nonprofit acting companies, and television offer expanded opportunities for actors. The key to employment will continue to be talent.

Working Conditions

Acting is a demanding profession. After spending many hours studying their lines, actors rehearse their parts over and over, learning proper movements and gestures, cues, delivery and expression, and how best to project the characters they are portraying. They work closely with other members of the cast and the director—and sometimes the writer—to perfect the performance. Rehearsals often last well into the night.

Stage actors usually work six days a week, giving performances every night, as well as Wednesday and Saturday afternoons. Some plays are performed twice nightly on weekends. Sometimes actors go "on the road" with shows, playing in different cities every few days.

Television and film performers often spend hours waiting before they go "on camera." The time allotted for learning parts and rehearsing may be limited, so actors work under a great deal of pressure. Since filming may be done on location, they may also work in a variety of climates.

Earnings and Benefits

Stage actors belong to the Actors' Equity Association, motion picture actors belong to the Screen Actors Guild, and television and radio performers are members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. These unions, along with producers, establish minimum salaries and the number of working hours, including rehearsal time, for actors. Each actor also signs a specific contract listing conditions not covered in the basic contract.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May of 2004 the median pay for actors was $11.28 per hour. Broadway actors earn a minimum of $1,422 per week. For off-Broadway actors, the minimum ranges from about $493 to $857 per week, depending on the theater's seating capacity. Actors in shows on tour receive an extra $770 per week for food and hotel expenses.

Where to Go for More Information

Actors' Equity Association
165 W. 46th St.
New York, NY 10036
(212) 869-8530

American Alliance for Theatre and Education
7475 Wisconsin Ave., Ste. 300A
Bethesda, MD 20814
(301) 951-7977

American Federation of Television and Radio Artists
260 Madison Ave.
New York, NY 10016-2401
(212) 532-0800

Screen Actors Guild
5757 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036-3600
(323) 954-1600

Although a small number of popular actors earn millions of dollars each year, the average income of the majority of Screen Actors Guild members is less than $5,000 per year. Beginning October 1, 2005, all unionized actors with a speaking part in a motion picture or television show were guaranteed a minimum daily pay rate of $716, or $2,483 for a five-day week. Most actors find that work is sporadic, and they must supplement their incomes by working other jobs. Actors who work a certain number of hours per year are covered by pension funds and hospitalization insurance.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesCommunication and the Arts